Modesto Irrigation District raises water rate for farmers

04/15/2014 11:00 AM

04/15/2014 7:12 PM

Farmers in the Modesto Irrigation District got a 10 percent increase in their basic water rate Tuesday, along with a temporary drought surcharge that’s much bigger.

The board also capped 2014 water deliveries at 24 vertical inches per acre – better than the 18 inches that had been planned, but still far less than the average of 42 inches since 1989.

Even with the increases, MID has some of the cheapest water in the San Joaquin Valley, and this year’s allotment is much better than what some farmers in the region face.

MID farmers will pay $32.50 per acre for the 24 inches, plus the drought surcharge of $11.91 per acre, which mainly will cover the cost of pumping MID wells to add to the Tuolumne River supply. Last year, farmers paid $29.50 per acre, which brought them up to 36 inches of water.

Director Larry Byrd dissented. He said he did not like a provision allowing farmers to sell their 2014 allocations for use by others – water he said could be replaced by private wells that are stressing the aquifers.

“We’ll be encouraging pumping at a time when we should be discouraging it,” Byrd said.

Director Jake Wenger said groundwater in the district is in good shape thanks to a river treatment plant that has supplied Modesto and a few smaller communities for about 20 years, reducing their reliance on wells.

“Our water table has come up 42 feet since the water treatment plant came online,” Wenger said. “That’s a resource.”

MID expects to start delivering water today, a few weeks later than planned because of late storms that kept the ground moist. The surcharge will last as long as the drought goes on, officials said.

The rate package includes a $400-per-acre charge for water freed up by the “allocation return program,” one of three methods the district plans for stretching this year’s supply. The price is typical of water transfers around the Valley this year as farmers scramble to protect high-value orchards and other plantings.

The board also has agreed to let farmers buy and sell their shares of water on the open market, for any price they negotiate. Also, MID is planning to pay farmers for water pumped from private wells into canals.

Under state law, the board could not have increased rates if a majority of the 2,950 affected landowners filed protests. Only 12 did so before the meeting, and three spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing.

One of them, Ladd Road walnut and almond grower Galen Wise, said he will have enough water this year thanks to transfers from other lands, but some farmers could have a tough time.

Wise also asked why MID is short of water when it has so much storage capacity in Don Pedro Reservoir, which can hold 2.03 million acre-feet.

Don Pedro is about half full. Some of the water will go to MID and the Turlock Irrigation District, some will be released for fish in the lower river, and some is a “dead pool” with no outlet.

The rate increase also applies to river water that MID treats for domestic users. It is a tiny part of their water bills, which also cover treatment, delivery and other costs.

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